Divversity and Inclusion (D&I) is a term used by business leaders when giving glowing praise to their organization’s culture. Research has shown that workforce diversity is a source of innovation, access to new markets, and prosperity in general. But diversity and inclusion also leads to multilingual workforces. A multilingual workforce presents unique challenges. To understand how to communicate with a diverse workplace, you’ll need to make sure the company’s messages can be easily understood – by every employee.
The statistics tell the story of diversity in the U.S. workforce. Foreign-born workers are almost half Hispanic and one-fourth Asian. The Center for Immigration Studies tracks statistics published by the Census Bureau. In over 21 percent of U.S. homes, members of the household speak a language other than English. In the nation’s five largest cities, 48.2 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home. The top 10 foreign languages spoken in the U.S. are Spanish, Chinese, French and French Creole, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, German, Arabic, and Russian. These statistics tell us that tens of millions of people are in the workplace each day trying to cope with low English skills.
Communicating with All Employees (Not Just Some)
You likely have a diverse workforce, but an essential element of inclusion is excellent communication. Does your workplace have effective communication with all employees and not only people who have English as a first or only language? How do you communicate with a diverse workplace on critical issues? You must communicate about your company’s mission, rules, policies, and perspective on unions.
Are employees trained in a language other than their native language? Are there company websites, videos, and eLearning modules available in a variety of languages? Have you ever had one or more supervisors experience difficulty explaining a procedure to a diverse staff member? Has an employee experienced a safety issue, broken a rule, failed to inform a manager of a workplace issue – all because of language barriers?
It’s safe to say that most U.S. businesses practice Global English. The term Global English references the fact that business people in all parts of the world speak English, even those in which English is not native. But even with Global English as the standard, it doesn’t make sense to ignore other languages. This is true when hiring or interacting with people who have low or no English skills.
Perfect Setup for Unions
One of the principles of Global English is that it is literal by design, to reduce misunderstandings. A significant challenge for employees who aren’t comfortable with English is understanding and interpreting phrases taken for granted by native English speakers.
For example, you may use the phrase, “set the record straight” to explain that unions impact worker jobs “across the board.” These phrases have little meaning to a non-English speaking person. A supervisor may try to explain healthcare benefits and end up leaving the employee altogether “in the dark.” The employee thinks the benefits plan is adequate for personal needs, only to find out there are coverage gaps.
Your manager might try to explain there is an “open-door policy.” Employees for whom English might be a second language have no idea what this means. That means those employees might never accept this invitation. They might never speak with a supervisor about their job, working conditions, or personal needs. It is the perfect setup for union organizing.
Employee engagement requires high-quality communication. You need to engage ALL employees regardless of their English fluency. There are strong reasons for training in multiple languages. One is reducing the time it takes for the employees to learn and absorb the information they need to make good decisions.
Going back to the ideas of diversity & inclusion, what happens when your employees are hesitant to communicate with their English-speaking supervisors,? You are likely missing out on different perspectives and insights, which can lead to innovation and growth. As the Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini said, “A different language is a different vision of life.”
An employee who speaks Spanish can talk to union representatives, no differently than an employee who speaks English. You can trust the union will find an interpreter, if necessary. Most unions have Spanish-speaking representatives on staff today. In fact, people who converse in a foreign language with co-workers can discuss things far more privately than those who do speak English.
It is crucial that your company offers training materials in the languages your employees speak. Not only does this demonstrate respect for your employees, but it is also the only way to ensure consistency in your message.
Your employees want to be informed. They want to understand how to address grievances. Your employees need you to reinforce the benefits of working for the company. You’ll also want to promote job safety and discourage unionizing. Any labor relations professional will tell you that regular communication in multiple languages provides some legal coverage. Taking measures to communicate consistently can keep every employee on the same page.
Not Legal in Translation
In 2014, Labriola Baking Co. and Juventino Silva, Petitioner and Teamsters Local 734 (Case Number 13-RD-089891), a situation involving language occurred during a decertification campaign. The employer said to employees, in English, “If you chose union representation, we believe the union will push you toward a strike. Should this occur, we will exercise our legal right to hire replacement workers.”
A company can legally make this statement. At Labriola Baking Co., the company payroll manager translated the speech into Spanish. At the end, the payroll manager used the words “legal workers” or a “legal workforce” instead of “replacement workers.” The NLRB found that a reference to a legal workforce was “objectionable and highly coercive.” The NLRB viewed the inconsistency in the Spanish translation as a threat. You can state a legal fact and still end up in violation of the law as a result of an incorrect interpretation.
The clear lesson is that you need to communicate important information in the language of your employees. However, utilize professionals to help deliver that message consistently. In the Labriola case, since the person doing the translation was an employee, so the employer was held liable.
“Us Together” Instead of “Us vs. Them”
ADP offered best practices for communication in a diverse workforce. These tips include communicating with employees in their native language. They also suggest using more than one form of communication. The article goes on to suggest providing English courses to employees, and including everyone to avoid trust issues and the creation of an “us versus them” mentality. The last item of “us versus them” creates an ideal climate for unionization. People feel isolated and believe they have no voice in the workplace.
Most often, frontline managers understand the need for communication tools in multiple languages. Often upper management doesn’t want to spend the money to produce communications in multiple languages. It then falls upon the people working directly with multi-cultural employees to convey the business case to upper management.
Providing native-tongue training helps workers understand the critical points and language nuances while increasing learning success. Providing employee training and education information in a variety of languages is more efficient because it’s always available to 24/7 – no rushing around to find an interpreter. It’s also cost-effective, improving employee productivity through better engagement, and promoting learning. The employee with limited English doesn’t have to try and translate a website or video information, enabling the person to concentrate on the message, rather than translating.
Communication In Any Language
In what languages do you offer your employee communications? Besides English, do you have Spanish-speaking employees, Vietnamese, Haitian-Creole, German, French, Laotian? As the Labriola Baking Co. case demonstrated, you shouldn’t trust important topics like unions and company policies solely to translators.
Ultimately, you should feel comfortable knowing your leaders and employees know how to communicate with a diverse workplace. Harness the power of technology to engage, train, and inform every employee. The money invested in communicating in different languages will be recouped many times, especially when it keeps your business union-free.